Northwestern leaves flat Cardinal in purple daze after 16-6 season-opening defeat

September 7, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 7, 2015

Contrary to what the record books would have you believe, the Stanford Cardinal didn’t field a single football team in 2014.

On paper, last year’s club had an 8-5 record. But those victories and losses were really the product of two teams. There was the vigorous, buoyant Dr. Jekyll that ran up no fewer than 31 points apiece in seven games over Davis, Army, Washington State, Oregon State, Cal, UCLA and Maryland — all victories. And then there was the sickly, anemic Mr. Hyde that mustered no more than 17 points per outing in five games against USC, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon and Utah — all losses. (The Cardinal also squeaked out a 20-13 road win against Washington in a game that the Huskies arguably squandered by attempting a questionable fake punt near midfield.)

2014’s brightest moments were unquestionably the resounding Big Game win, the Cardinal’s fifth straight against its closest rival; the surprising thumping of UCLA, a top-10 team, at the Rose Bowl; and the 45-21 domination of Maryland in the Foster Farms Bowl. The year’s worst moments were… Well, it’s hard to choose whether rock bottom was the 13-10 home loss to USC, the 17-14 loss to the Fighting Irish, or weak road efforts against Arizona State and Oregon. For my money, though, the year’s worst outing was a 20-17 home (!) loss in double overtime (!!) to Utah (!!!).

Stanford entered the 2015 with plenty of questions, not least among them how much leadership and execution veteran starting quarterback Kevin Hogan would provide and how defensive coordinator Lance Anderson would prepare a unit that lost nine of its 11 starters.

But the main question really boiled down to this: Which team would show up to games — Stanford Jekyll or Cardinal Hyde?

The early returns Saturday in Evanston, Ill., were promising. On the first possession of the game, the Cardinal offense marched 64 yards on 12 plays, culminating in a 29-yard Conrad Ukropina field goal and a 3-0 lead over host Northwestern. Do-everything sophomore back Christian McCaffrey, expected to be a main engine of the offense, had four touches on the drive: A 13-yard reception from Hogan and runs of seven, zero and 12 yards.

The Cardinal defense’s debut outing of 2015 was similarly efficient. The white-clad visitors allowed only a three-yard run. The Wildcats punted after three snaps.

But the Stanford offense went three and out on its second possession, while the Wildcats’ second drive was much more productive. Three times the Cardinal defenders faced third down; three times they allowed the ball carriers in purple jerseys to convert first downs. Stanford forced an incomplete pass on third and 7 at the Cardinal 14-yard-line, but Jack Mitchell’s 31-yard field goal tied the game with 52 seconds left in the first quarter.

To that point, Stanford had held a 3-0 lead for 7 minutes and 41 seconds. That was its last lead of the game.

With 10 minutes left in the second quarter, Clayton Thorson started a drive by ripping off a 12-yard run. The freshman Northwestern quarterback completed passes on consecutive third downs. Then, on third and seven from the Cardinal 42, the speedy Thorson ran around left end and took it to the house, giving the Wildcats a 10-3 advantage.

The margin might have been even greater at the half if Mitchell hadn’t knocked a 48-yard field-goal attempt wide left.

The Stanford offense indicated that it might spark when McCaffrey started the team’s first possession of the third quarter with a 27-yard run. But the team would only muster one more first down in the period.

The Cardinal defense held Northwestern down for a while, but the Wildcats found a rhythm going into the fourth quarter. The team called 11 running plays on a 13-play drive, with most of the carries going to Justin Jackson, who would finish the day with 28 rushes for 136 yards. The drive fizzled on goal to go from the Cardinal 2-yard line, but Mitchell’s 19 yard kick, his third successful field goal of the day, gave the Cats a two-possession lead with 12:21 left in the fourth period.

That finally seemed to bring a sense of urgency to the visiting offense. After eight straight drives that had resulted in no points — and that only twice had gained more than 10 yards — the Cardinal advanced 55 yards on 13 plays. But after stalling at the Northwestern 26, the team settled for a 37-yard Ukropina kick that made the score 13-6 with half the quarter remaining.

Unfortunately, the defense allowed the Wildcats to get two first downs. Facing fourth and 6 at the Cardinal 32, Northwestern sent Mitchell out for the fourth time on the day. His 49-yard try sailed through the uprights with plenty of room to spare, meaning that once again the Cardinal would need two scores to tie or take the lead.

With less than four minutes to go, Stanford was up against the wall. Once again, Hogan was able to move the chains. Unofficially, he completed eight of 11 pass attempts. (A defensive holding penalty negated a would-be interception.) But on the drive’s final play, on third and goal at the 2, Hogan was picked by Kyle Queiro in the end zone. Northwestern ran out the clock with two knees, giving the Wildcats a 16-6 victory.

The box score was full of dismaying statistics. Northwestern outrushed Stanford, 225 yards to 85; converted 12 of 22 third-down tries, compared to a measly 3 of 15 for the Cardinal; sacked Hogan three times while allowing none; and collected two turnovers without giving up the ball. The Wildcats also dominated time of possession in the second and third quarters.

So the Cardinal offensive line, which returned four starters and was expected to be one of the team’s strengths, was ineffective in the ground game and mediocre at best when it came to pass protection. The Cardinal front seven, which returned just two linebackers and was a big question mark, could most aptly be described as vulnerable.

Worst of all, the quarterback, who came in with 32 career starts, exhibited a split personality. On the opening and closing drives, Jekyll Hogan officially completed 12 of 15 passes for 91 yards. Otherwise, Kevin Hyde was 8 for 20 for a measly 64 yards and an interception. Neither manifestation of the passer gathered a touchdown, although — perhaps meaningfully — on his first play of the game, Hogan lost a yard recovering his own fumble following a keeper that gained zero yards.

Worst of all, Hogan displayed plenty of disturbing habits. He frequently locked on to receivers, including tight end Austin Hooper on his disastrous final toss. He also had some off-the-mark throws, including one to Greg Taboada in the fourth quarter that helped force the Cardinal to settle for a field goal. (Taboada, a tight end, stands 6-foot-5; I joked that Hogan’s pass could easily have been caught if former NBA 7-foot-6-incher Yao Ming had been the target.) A number of sideline throws resulted in incompletions because Cardinal receivers couldn’t drag a foot in-bounds in the process of catching the ball — again, a function of a poorly thrown ball.

Hogan was let down on at least one crucial occasion by his receiving corps. On the second play of the aforementioned late field-goal drive, Hogan delivered a perfect deep bomb that Michael Rector let bounce off his hands.

All in all, the Cardinal came off seeming unprepared and uninspired in sustaining its first loss to open the season since 2007. The team’s bizarrely calling timeout before its first offensive snap of the third quarter contributed to the impression of a team in disarray.

And Northwestern was hardly a top-tier adversary: The Cats were 5-7 in 2014 with only three conference wins. Thorson — again, a freshman quarterback! — completed 12-24 passes for 105 and gained 68 yards on eight carries.

This bodes ill for Stanford, especially since next week’s game is against Central Florida, an American Athletic Conference team that finished 9-4 last year. If the Cardinal overlooks this non-name-brand foe, it could find itself staring up from the bottom of a deep, dark 0-2 hole.

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